SEATTLE — If you’re eating seafood in the US, there is a good chance it came through Seattle. Data from 2017 show more than 150 million pounds of seafood worth nearly $500 million came through the city on the sound. But COVID-19 is changing everything.
A new study published in the Journal of Fish and Fisheries found that seafood imports, exports and catches were all down around 40% compared to 2019, a colossal decline.
“We were scared, just like everybody. Not only with the health concerns and people getting sick, and then financially we just bought the business a couple years ago from our boss and it was pretty quiet, pretty sleepy down here," said Ryan Reese, one of the owners of Pike Place Fish Market.
Just like everyone else, they’ve had to adjust during the pandemic.
“We’ve converted our whole operation like a little shipping factory and so we’ve really changed our focus from over the counter service to trying really hard to drive our online presence,” said Reese.
Ryan says they’ve been lucky to stay busy shipping fish out to customers.
“People still need to eat everyday and they’re cooking at home and luckily they think of us and we ship overnight and so we’re feeling grateful,” Reese said.
What we found is it’s kind of a mixed bag with the seafood industry; some companies are adapting really well and getting their product to people and other companies are really struggling and their sales are down from 10% to 40%.
“You got to have your gear in perfect condition, it’s gotta be fishing for you, that’s what makes the money,” said Cub Jansen, fishing captain.
Cub is doing some maintenance work on one of his boats. He and his crew had a tough season.
“The biggest thing would be the price difference. You know, we’ve been hurting on price. Typically in Alaska, we’d get paid $3 per pound for crab, but this year we got paid $1.85 per pound. There’s no casinos buying, no cruise ships, there’s limited capacity at restaurants, so it’s made for a tough market,” Jansen said.
When you have no place to sell your catch, that can crush an industry.
“This year has really hurt our crews and our boat owners earnings,” said Bob Alverson, the manager of the Fishing Vessels Owner’s Association.
He says his members are hurting.
“The earnings for our crews and the boats are off about 30 to 40%,” Alverson said.
There are two huge reasons. First, seafood is mostly sold in restaurants and COVID-19 restrictions have been hard on those businesses.
“The restaurant trade is where we make our living a lot and I feel sorry for the waiters and waitresses’ businesses. They have really been hit hard. And anyone who depends on selling their product through the restaurant trade has been similarly hit,” Alverson said.
Second, exports to Japan and China have essentially dried up since the pandemic.
“We’ve lost our overseas markets to China, which buy the vast majority of our live crab,” Jansen said.
That leaves this group of hardworking people with a lot of questions.
“The biggest thing with the COVID stuff is, am I going to have a market tomorrow? Am I going to be able to sell this crab or salmon that I have on the boat? Or is everything going to shutdown?” Jansen said.
Those are the type of questions that make you lose sleep at night.
But it’s not the first time this industry has been hit hard, and it certainly won’t be the last. Maybe you wouldn’t know by looking at them, but fisherman tend to be ocean half full type of people.
“In the fish business, everybody is an optimist. Next year can always be better than this year,” Alverson said.
“There’s a lot of heritage and a lot of pride. It’s a hard working community,” Reese said.
“We all need each other,” Jansen said.
We all need each other, a simple phrase that might apply to more than just the fishing community during this pandemic.